WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. Dianne Feinstein recalls turning on her television and seeing a young Chinese girl crying before a judge, without even an interpreter to help her after surviving a harrowing journey to the U.S.
That was the genesis of a law six years ago that is now at the center of an immigration crisis at the nation's Southern border. More than 57,000 youths, mostly from Central America, have crossed into the U.S. illegally since October. Fewer than 2,000 of them have been sent back.
Immigration advocates and many Democrats insist on preserving what they describe as important protections in the 2008 law for unaccompanied youths who flee their home countries or are smuggled to the U.S.
Most Republicans and a few Democrats want to change the law to address circumstances far different from six years ago, when no more than 8,000 kids arrived at the border each year without their parents.
"The 2008 law creates a process that made sense when you're talking about a limited number of children, the victims of sex trafficking. It doesn't make sense when you talk about 50,000 unaccompanied minors," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "The 2008 law wasn't designed to deal with this situation."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., countered, "The best interest of the child would be what the law says: Hold them in a safe and clean shelter, rather than returning them to face possible death."
The dispute has held up congressional action on President Barack Obama's $3.7 billion emergency spending request for more immigration judges, detention facilities and other resources for the border. Prospects for a compromise are dim, and Congress may leave for its annual summer recess in two weeks without doing anything to deal with the unfolding crisis.